Penn State sociologist, Philip Jenkins, claims that Christian revivalism is spreading like wild-fire in South America, Africa, and Asia. In these places, collectively known as the “Global South,” churches are growing exponentially. Contrast this with North America and Europe, where revivalism is, according to one noted Baptist historian, on “life support.”
Over the past several weeks, I have been wrestling with the idea that only certain aspects of revivalism are waning in North America. I argued that the spirit of revivalism is alive and well. (This is, by the way, my final article on the subject.) In fact, many facets of revivalism can be transformative in a world longing for redemption and reconciliation.
Perhaps churches throughout the Global South, with all of its passion for revivalism and the Gospel, has something to teach us. There seems to be certain ingredients in these places that make revivalism a perfect catalyst for soul transformation. We might lack some of these ingredients, but they are not entirely lost. Reclaiming them will do us good.
One ingredient is storytelling. South America, Africa, and Asia are steeped in oracular cultures, which simply means that folks can tell really good stories.
Bestselling Asian memoirist, Da Chen, notes how storytelling inspired him to be an author. When he was a child, traveling storytellers would come to his village to tell ancient myths of old. It provided meaning in an uncertain and magical world; it gave the village a place among a vast cosmos that spanned the heavens.
We are a people of the Book; so, the act of storytelling is a natural way to spread the Gospel to our children, neighbors, and community.
One of the most powerful stories to tell is how you met Christ and how God changed your life. Preachers do not have a monopoly on storytelling, and Jesus called all his followers to “tell the old, old story” of God’s love and forgiveness.
Another ingredient is mystery. The Global South is rooted in tribal and mythical worldviews that lend themselves to the message of the Gospel. People are accustomed to believing in what they can’t see–the mystery of the unknown–because they grew up steeped in the conviction that spiritual forces exist among mortals.
Although many people in our culture have become cynical about all things spiritual because of science and technology, there is still room for the mystery of the Gospel to compel people to respond to God’s call of salvation in Christ.
We see people being compelled by mysterious, spiritual acts all the time: Yoga, the New Age/self-help movement, and horoscopes are spiritual practices that woo millions of Americans every day. What these eastern-born rituals represent is a mystery that speaks to the deepest recesses of a person’s soul. They provide meaning beyond a shallow, consumer-driven culture.
The mystery of the Gospel not only trumps these practices with eternal ramifications, but also offers hope rooted in God’s creative truth.
It’s hard to reclaim this mystery, however, when so many of us have simplified the Gospel into cliches, trite formulas, and marketing gimmicks. No wonder why so many people see Christianity as a joke; why so many people read books like “The God Delusion,” by Richard Dawkins.
God will be not be domesticated by our subtle attempts to control that which is ultimately fascinating and mysterious–in the words of Rudolf Otto, the “mysterium fascinans.”
Our worship in church and our missions in the community can revive and embody both of these ingredients–storytelling and mystery–by continuing to reinforce the spirit of revivalism rather than the rituals of religiosity.
When we follow the leading of the Holy Spirit rather than some formula for evangelism of yesteryear, we soon discover that our faith is re-grounded in a relationship with a mysterious, yet intimate Storytelling God, who provides us with meaning and a place amongst the cosmos.